Most musical theatre requires a suspension of disbelief. Sweeney Todd demands that you slit disbelief’s throat, dispatch it down a chute into a spooky basement, squash it three times through a mincing machine then bake on high for three hours.
It’s a large slice of incredulity pie.
Here’s a few of the coincidences, contrivances and creaky plot devices we are asked to swallow.
Sweeney is rescued from drowning in the ocean – Pacific I imagine, the really big one – by a young sailor, Anthony. They arrive in London together but part company immediately after Sweeney relates a synopsis of the back story – he was framed by a judge who had designs on his wife. Anthony has an uncanny knack of not only tracking Sweeney down – in the biggest and most densely populated city in the world at the time – but turning up at precisely the wrong moment. Or rather precisely the right moment for maximum melodramatic impact.
The first person Sweeney meets is Nellie Lovett, maker of the worst pies in London. She recognises Sweeney as Benjamin Barker. This is not too surprising given that he has returned to his old haunt and his barber shop happened to be above her failing dining establishment. She informs him that his wife was raped and then took poison, and their daughter, Johanna, ended up as ward of the evil Judge Turpin. Incredibly Mrs Lovett has always carried a torch for Sweeney. Miraculously she reveals that she hid away his razors soon after he was transported for life to Botany Bay (why she didn’t pawn them is anyone’s guess, she’s evidently been down on her luck for quite a while) and reunites him with the impressive silverware. In an instant Sweeney has a place to live, a partner in crime (perhaps more the misdemeanors too) and a business plan.
The first person Anthony sees in London is Sweeney’s daughter, Johanna, looking out of her bedroom window, pining to be allowed her freedom. He falls in love at first sight and asks a passing beggar woman her identity. The judge sees a sailor ogling Johanna and sends his beadle to beat Anthony up.
In order to drum up business Sweeney challenges another barber to a shaving contest in the street. Beadle Bamford just happens to be passing and Sweeney asks him to judge the winner. The beadle doesn’t recognise Sweeney, even though he was central to Judge Turpin’s plan to steal the wife, and even though Sweeney is plying his trade from the same premises as before. But he can see that Sweeney is a bit handy with the cut-throat. The other barber does recognise Sweeney – he was an apprentice back in the day – and tries to blackmail him. Sweeney practices his demon barber skills on the ex-employee and dumps him in a chest.
The judge decides the best thing to keep his adopted daughter from the clutches of an unsuitable suitor is to get her married off. To himself. The beadle thinks, fair enough, but why not get a bit of a makeover first? (moral objections dissolve at the sight of clean shaven chops and a whiff of Bay Rum.) Off they go to Sweeney’s/Benjamin Barker’s barber shop.
The judge doesn’t recognise Sweeney. But before Sweeney has a chance to sever the judge’s jugular – he dilly-dallies with a duet about pretty women, like you do before a spot of cold blooded assassination – in bursts Anthony. He has news. He’s been loitering outside a 16 year old girl’s bedroom window for days – technically stalking a minor – and she dropped him the house key so he could sneak in when dad was at work busy hanging people. He’s managed to talk (ahem) to Johanna and they have made plans. Obviously simple social etiquette like knocking on the door of an acquaintance before entering his room would have been a narrative hindrance, so Anthony blurts out his intention to elope with Johanna in front of the lathered up judge – interrupting her birth father slitting the throat of her adoptive father (who therefore is also Sweeney’s potential son-in-law).
The judge is not happy. Sweeney is even less content. He hasn’t managed to reach his murder target for the day and plans for future carnage have been severely botched. To console him Mrs Lovett suggests a little distraction. That Italian stiff languishing in the linen basket wouldn’t half make a decent lunch served with a splash of gravy and a decent bit of pie crust, she hints. Business needs a lift. In austerity Britain thrift is a virtue.
The pie shop flourishes. Sweeney and Mrs Lovett become a respectable couple.
The judge bangs Johanna up in a walled and gated lunatic asylum. Anthony finds her by the foolproof method of wandering every street of London, peering into windows and knocking on doors. He tells Sweeney that it’s impossible to free her. Impossible for everyone, ponders Sweeney, everyone but a wigmaker! So he kits out Anthony with a new suit – a kind of wigmaking superhero costume – and hands him a gun, in case the sewing scissors aren’t threatening enough. Then he arranges for the judge to visit the barbers shop for the handover of a repentant and compliant Johanna. Johanna has spent months in a straight-jacket and killed the superintendent in the escape attempt, so you might think she’d be a bit peeved with her adoptive pa, and the judge would be right to be a little circumspect. Maybe turn up with some protection in case things turned nasty? But for someone with such a genius for malevolence he’s a bit trusting and turns up at Sweeney’s on cue, alone. This time the duet doesn’t end so well for the judge.
Sweeney has previously dispatched the mad beggar woman down the chute and next he manages to manoeuvre the beadle into his barbers chair. There’s quite a backlog of bodies in the bakehouse basement. Joanna narrowly misses joining them – she was hiding in the basket when biological dad did in bad dad – as Sweeney was distracted by the screams of Mrs Lovett. In the light of the ovens Sweeney recognises that the mad beggar woman he’s just polished off is in fact his wife, Lucy. This makes him so mad with Mrs Lovett for deceiving him he shoves her alive and kicking into the oven and slams the door. Then he gets his own throat cut.
Like I said, Sweeney Todd is completely crackers. Ludicrous beyond belief. A sheer, splatter, slasher gore-fest. It’s also magnificently enjoyable and a whole-hearted superb performance. And if pure escapism is what you are after then I can’t imagine a better way to spend three hours. I’m still humming the tunes and chuckling to myself days later. Just don’t wear your best gear if you want to sit at the front. The blood-letting is liberal in the extreme.
Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is on at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 26 October.